For the first time the country declared a national holiday on Ambedkar Jayanti. Statues, rallies and advertisement campaigns marked the day as almost every political party paid obeisance to the father of modern India's most committed votebank.
And that brings us to the question of the day that was asked on CNN-IBN show Face the Nation: Is Ambedkar's legacy more enduring than Gandhi's?
On the panel of experts to debate the issue were author and historian Ramachandra Guha, Dalit thinker and author Chandrabhan Prasad and BJP leader Sheshadri Chari.
The legacy leaders
When one looks at Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati and the BSP, does it seem that the Mahatma has lost out to Ambedkar in terms of a living political legacy?
Beginning the debate Guha said, “In the context of Dalit emancipation it is only just and right that leaders and activists come from within the Dalit community. I think Gandhi made an enormous contribution in awakening the conscience of some upper caste people to Dalit oppression. Ambedkar provided the alternative route to self-organisation which was necessary for the Dalits.”
So is Ambedkar more politically relevant to modern India? “Yes and no because Gandhi was much more than the caste issue,” Guha said.
“Gandhi’s vision was much more than India. If Ambedkar is the conscience of the nation then Gandhi is the conscience of the world. So let’s celebrate and honour both, let’s not choose between them,” he added.
Chari has been associated with the Hindu nationalist movement in which culture is always seen as an identity and an organising principle. But Ambedkar’s legacy has shown that it’s not culture but caste that has been a medium to mobilise people.
Beginning his argument on a philosophical note Chari said, “They say the best way to punish a philosopher is to provide him with followers.”
He then went on to say that what has failed Gandhi and Ambedkar are their followers.
“I would rather say that both Gandhi and Ambedkar took a leaf out of Gautam Buddha’s philosophy. Gandhi’s stress was more on non-violence and peace while Ambedkar’s was more on divisions that caste has made on the Hindu society. Buddha’s crusade against the divisions in the Hindu society was something that Ambedkar drew an inspiration from. And in a way both had unshakable faith that it was religion alone which could materialise their vision,” Chari explained.
Political legacy vs people’s legacy
Chari believes that it was possible for a section of the leadership in the present political circle to transform Ambedkar into a political icon, which the Congress party was unable to do because of its own internal contradictions.
“Mayawati and Kanshi Ram have made Ambedkar a modern icon and not Ambedkar himself,” he said.
However, Prasad said, “Gandhism is the philosophy of the dead while Ambedkar is the philosophy of the living. So it’s a logical progress, which creates a Mayawati and Kanshi Ram.”
Disagreeing with Prasad’s argument, Chari said, “I don’t agree with this total dismissal of Gandhi. I would in fact agree with Guha that Gandhi’s philosophy extends to the whole world. Peace and non-violence are issues that everybody in the world is talking about. Ambedkar associated himself with one single problem, which he was also subjected to in his own life.”
The point of contention turned out to be that Gandhism has become a romantic and utopian idea whereas Ambedkar spoke about modern prescriptions suited for the present times.
But as the debate gathered more steam, Guha said, “I would like to bring in again the global context. You speak of Mayawati and Kanshi Ram as inheritors of Ambedkar’s legacy while the inheritors of Gandhi’s legacy are Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and the list goes on and on.”
“Both Gandhi and Ambedkar are legends so let us not make the mistake of opposing them and pitching them against one another,” he added.
Meanwhile, Chari said that it would be wrong to compare Gandhi with Ambedkar because they had a number of similarities.
There is also an argument that Gandhism has become an idealist thought whereas Ambedkar remains a politically mobilising force.
To which Prasad said, “Gandhi has been an institutional liability. The entire nation has been promoting him for the past 60 years. On the other hand Ambedkar is a non-institutional person.”
Institutionally, the legacy of Gandhi has been kept alive by the state whereas Ambedkar has been remembered by a people’s movement. But Guha said, “There are lots of popular movements that keep alive Gandhi’s legacy like the Chipko Movement, Narmada Bachao Andolan, Right to Information Act and many others.”
But Guha also agreed that “Ambedkar’s extraordinary posthumous resurgence is a remarkable thing. It’s a tribute to his ability to inspire devotion because Ambedkar breached the upper caste citadel. And he inspires Dalits to do likewise. So while we admire and celebrate Ambedkar, it does not mean that we need to diminish and decertify Gandhi.”
Ambedkar’s political avtaar
Chari explained that the victory of some of the Dalit leaders in the political arena, and not in the social arena, cannot be termed as the victory of all that Ambedkar stood for.
“Ambedkar did stand for the issue of untouchability and so was Gandhi. So it would be wrong to suggest that the failure of Congress party is the failure of Gandhi or the victory of Mayawati in politics is the victory of Ambedkar,” Chari said.
Chari also made an interesting point. “Ambedkar himself started a political party called the Republican Party of India and that party lost miserably in Maharashtra and he too lost the elections.”
Highlighting Ambedkar’s political foresight, Prasad said, “In Ambedkar’s 1951 manifesto he had said that India’s biggest problem are its machines and he even said that India’s best ally would be the US. So what India is thinking today he had thought decades ago.”
Prescriptions for a modern India
Former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had once told Gandhi, “Bapu you are much greater than your little books.”
But when it comes to prescriptions for a modern India unlike Ambedkar – who drafted the Constitution of India and the Hindu Code Bill, spoke about the emancipation of women, reservation for castes – Gandhi perhaps did not have hands-on solution to some basic problems.
But Guha said, “The only reason Ambedkar was in the Cabinet is because Gandhi pursued Nehru to put him there. Ambedkar demonised the Congress but Gandhi cautioned Nehru that freedom had come to the whole of India and so the Cabinet should include the best minds. So I would rather say that Nehru, Ambedkar and Gandhi are the three modern Indians who did the most to bring India in line with an egalitarian and humane society.”
However, Ambedkar himself said that “Gandhism is nothing but the philosophy of the rich and the privileged class and Mahatmas may come and go but untouchables will remain untouchables.”
Keeping his constant antagonism between Ambedkar and Gandhi Prasad said, “See Gandhiji belongs to the past and Ambedkar belongs to the future.”
And concluding the debate Chari said, “Both Gandhi and Ambedkar have failed in their approach as are far as solving the issues of this country are concerned.”
Final results of the SMS poll:
Yes – 78 per cent
No – 22 per cent
Mahatma Gandhi is the patron saint of independent India and his place in the nation's imagination is unquestioned. But for lakhs of Dalits across India, Ambedkar remains a symbol of education and empowerment beyond wildest dreams. Gandhi is a moral ideal, but Ambedkar a political fighting force – not a mass politician but an intellectual who forged a new identity for millions.